- Associated Press - Saturday, June 7, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama officials have just a few weeks to sort out confusion about whether gun-toting voters should be allowed in polling places under a new state law, and the answers may not be easy to come by.

Differing interpretations of the law became a problem during last week’s primary after men showed up with guns in at least two precincts near Birmingham, and an east Alabama county first banned guns from polling places only to change the policy on Election Day.

A law enforcement leader in Shelby County, where the two armed voters tried to cast ballots, said someone needs to sort out the confusion before the runoff election July 15.

“Anytime you have any law that leads to different counties doing different things I think it’s fair to say everyone would like a controlling opinion so everyone is on the same page,” said Capt. Ken Burchfield of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.

Secretary of State Jim Bennett - Alabama’s top election official - didn’t offer instructions to county polling officials about the law before last week’s primary and is now offering guidance only if asked, said spokeswoman Emily Marsal.

“Secretary Bennett believes that the sheriffs have the best knowledge of how to enforce the gun laws within their counties,” Marsal, the deputy secretary of state, said in an interview conducted by email.

No one has asked Attorney General Luther Strange’s office for an opinion on the law, said spokeswoman Joy Patterson.

The executive director of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, Bobby Timmons, said a meeting is planned next week in Montgomery between gun rights activists, law enforcement and election officials to discuss the law, but Timmons suspects an answer won’t be found just by talking.

“It’s going to have to wind up in court,” he said. “Let a judge make the decision.”

A Republican-backed law passed last year allowed guns in many places but also said firearms were prohibited in locations including courthouses. Because of the law, many businesses have since posted signs barring firearms.

Timmons said he sent a letter to the state’s 67 sheriffs before the elections saying weapons should be prohibited from polling places because of a section of the law that bars gun in courthouses and courthouse annexes. A precinct is an extension of a courthouse, Timmons said, and people get mad about elections.

“Only one kid walked in with a gun and shot up all those people in Connecticut, and it would just take one person here,” said Timmons, referring to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In Alabaster, where gun rights supporter John David Murphy entered a church and tried to vote while wearing a loaded pistol despite a sign barring weapons, some voters were visibly uncomfortable at the site of an armed man in the precinct.

“Is it safe?” one woman asked as a sheriff’s deputy and police arrived after being notified by a poll worker. Murphy was allowed to vote, but only after storing his gun outside in his pickup truck.

In Chambers County, where Timmons said another armed person tried to vote, a statement from the sheriff’s department said the initial decision to ban weapons from polling places was based on Timmons’ memorandum. After complaints, Sheriff Sid Lockhart and Probate Judge Brandy Clark Easlick removed the restrictions during primary balloting.

“We apologize for any inconvenience that may have caused,” said the statement.

The firearms ban will remain in place in Shelby County during the runoff, said Burchfield. Voters shouldn’t have to worry about seeing armed civilians in polling places while casting ballots, he said, and law enforcement must protect everyone.

“Allowing openly armed people in polling places may hamper that ability,” said Burchfield.

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